When Rhys Lloyd's high school track team took a spring trip from Minnesota to Florida one year, he tried kicking a field goal at an NFL Extreme Challenge display. Lloyd blasted the ball so hard that it split open the head of one of the wooden defenders set up to block the kick.
Little did he know that ability would some day land him in the NFL doing nothing but that: Kicking a football as far and as hard as he can.
But that's what has happened for Lloyd, whose cannon-like leg has transformed a Carolina Panthers weakness in 2007 into a legitimate weapon during the team's 3-1 start.
Lloyd, whose first name is pronounced REECE, leads the NFL with nine touchbacks – kicking an unreturnable ball into or out of the end zone on kickoffs. He's done that on 47.4 percent of his kicks, which also leads the league. When that happens, an opposing team starts its possession at the 20, instead of having a chance to return the ball and get better field position.
“You try to kick it as hard as you can,” said Lloyd, who is largely responsible for the opposition's starting field position of the 22.1, tied for third in the NFL. “But within reason.”
Lloyd, born in Dover, England and the son of a former pro soccer player, says “within reason” because there's actually more to his job than simply lining up and whacking the ball as far as he can.
“It's like you're on the first hole in golf,” said Lloyd, who is in his second season in the NFL.
“You're not going to always swing as hard as you can because you want to keep the ball in the fairway.
“I know that even at 85 or 90 percent, my ball is longer than other guys in the league. You'd like for them all to go in the end zone for a touchback. But you realize you've got to keep it in play.”
He has combined that length with accuracy. He hasn't kicked a ball out of bounds – which would result in the opponents getting the ball at the 40.
That's where the Panthers and veteran kicker John Kasay struggled last season. Kasay, who continues to kick field goals successfully (he's made all eight of his attempts this season), had only two land in the end zone and had six go out bounds, most in the league.
“We've been fortunate to have some deep kicks and we've already pretty much quadrupled the number we had all last season in our first four games,” said Panthers coach John Fox. “That's a huge advantage.”
Fox gambled when he elected to keep Lloyd, because it's rare that an NFL team uses a precious roster spot on an extra kicker. But Fox thought that Lloyd's potential value justified the decision.
“I think there was more pressure on me to create the roster spot for myself during the preseason than there is now,” said Lloyd, who said he'd like to kick field goals one day.
“Now it's something I don't even think about. I've got no reason to think about things the organization may or may not do. The coaching staff and players understand why they kept me.”
Lloyd's family moved from England to Apple Valley, Minn., when he was 15. Although he ran track and played soccer, his dummy-shattering kick was witnessed by his high school's football coach, who convinced him to kick for his team.
He went on to kick in college at Minnesota and, after going undrafted by the NFL, bounced around training camps and NFL Europe before being signed last season by the Baltimore Ravens.
After the Ravens cut him in December, the Panthers picked him up.
Lloyd and his fiancée, pro golfer Tina Miller, have moved into a condo in uptown Charlotte. He's nearly a scratch golfer with a handicap that's gone as low as one. He even beat Miller recently.
But kicking is where Lloyd's true talent lies.
“Our guy has a leg on him, now,” said defensive tackle Damione Lewis, a player who benefits when Lloyd's kicks pin the opposition deep in its own territory. “He really gets up under the ball. We love it.”